Behind the masks

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Behind the masks

The ruling Saenuri Party once again is trying to push for a law prohibiting protesters from wearing surgical masks or other face coverings during rallies after the violent protests in Gwanghwamun Plaza last weekend. The government is in need of establishing an effective measure to deal with so-called professional protesters who used steel pipes and ladders to “show their power to paralyze the nation.” The ruling camp regards a law against masks as an efficient means to end the vicious cycle of violence at rallies.

Saenuri Party leader Kim Moo-sung said that the government must bring violent and illegal protesters to justice just like the international community has kicked off a campaign to root out Islamic State terrorists hiding behind masks of their own. Turning central Seoul into a riot zone by taking advantage of the freedom of assembly constitutes an act of violence that cannot be accepted no matter what. Our Constitution also interprets expressions of opinions through extreme violence as acts that aren’t protected by the law. A Mask Ban Act proposed by lawmakers in 2009 stipulated that a court would be able to punish someone with a maximum of one year in jail or a fine of up to 5 million won ($4,296) for wearing a face covering to conceal their identity.

According to the ruling party, anti-mask laws came into effect in Germany, France and the United States. Germany revised its criminal law in 1985 to punish protesters wearing masks during rallies. If they don’t comply with law enforcement officers’ demands to take off their masks, they can be sentenced to a maximum of one year in detention or fines. France has been imposing fines on masked protesters since 2009. In the United States, 15 states including Georgia prohibit protesters from joining rallies or demonstrations wearing masks.

The opposition and civic groups oppose such a law saying it infringes on individuals freedoms. The New Politics Alliance for Democracy points to a Constitutional Court ruling that protesters can freely choose their wardrobe during rallies. They contend that penalizing protesters for masks even when there is no clear and present danger of violence is an abuse of power. The National Human Rights Commission, too, opposed the government’s move.

The latest violence has led to a public consensus on zero tolerance for masterminds of illicit rallies and their followers. Opposition for the sake of opposition must be shunned. The government must reconcile individual integrity with the public interest before reaching a conclusion.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 20, Page 34

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